'Without Hezbollah, Lebanon would be like Gaza'
Text by Eugenie D’Hooghe
Photos by Simon Clement
As the Israeli army prepares for a ground offensive in Gaza, unrest is also growing in Lebanon. Increasing numbers of people are fleeing the border area with Israel. 'We had no choice but to leave our home behind.'
Hezbollah protest in the southern coastal town Sour, Lebanon. Photo by Simon Clement
A few days ago, Rana Khaled Swayd (27) arrived in the southern Lebanese city of Sour with her three young children. She is from Dhayra, where her home is literally the border between the Lebanese and Israeli battlefields. 'My husband stayed behind to watch over the flock of sheep,' she says.
The al-Shawakeer school in the heart of Sour serves as a temporary refuge for Lebanese fleeing the border strip with Israel. Little by little, an increasing number of refugees from the southern border villages are streaming into this place, in line with the escalating fighting. It currently houses about 5,500 people, 1,250 of whom have sought refuge in the school. Almost half of these new arrivals are children.
More than 19,000 people are fleeing across Lebanon, according to the United Nations. Following the lead of Hamas, which launched a bloody attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip a fortnight ago, Hezbollah, a Shiite-Islamic Lebanese organisation, has been battling southern neighbour Israel. Hezbollah fires rockets in Israel's direction, the Israeli army answers with bombardments.
According to Rana, Israel uses white phosphorus in the process. 'My husband is seriously ill as a result,' she testified. White phosphorus is a horrific weapon: it burns away people's skin and flesh when sprinkled on them. It is therefore banned under the law of war, but according to Human Rights Watch, Israel deploys it in Gaza and Lebanon. The Israeli army denies that it has used phosphorus in Gaza, about Lebanon it makes no statements.
However, many videos circulate among residents of southern Lebanon of how phosphorus is used against Lebanese targets. 'The white phosphorus has affected my husband's health; he is struggling with breathing problems, persistent cough, nausea and severe abdominal pain. Three days ago they gave him first aid, but medical treatment is limited,' says Rana.
Israel's use of white phosphorus seems to be becoming even more frequent, according to Rana. 'They reach for this substance because they want to hit the Hezbollah fighters, but in doing so they simultaneously hit everything that lives in this area,' she explains. 'Innocent people and our animals are being poisoned because they cannot precisely locate the armed men. Ordinary citizens are paying the price.'
'No other choice'
Hezbollah emerged in the early 1980s in response to the then Israeli invasion and has deep roots in the struggle for self-determination for the Shia community. Literally translated, Hezbollah stands for 'party of God' and despite several attempts by Israel to destroy the movement, it seems - especially with support from Iran - stronger than ever. The organisation's military wing is on the terror list of the European Union and the United States.
In 2000, Israel withdrew almost completely from Lebanon, although violence flared briefly in 2006. Fueled by Hezbollah's incursion across the border, neighbouring Israel invaded southern Lebanon. This military offensive lasted 34 days and resulted in about 1,300 Lebanese and 165 Israeli casualties.
Thinking back to that time evokes painful emotions for 70-year-old Moussa Jaber. 'That's when I lost my brother in a brutal way. He opened the door and was cold-bloodedly shot by Israeli forces.' Moussa harbours little hope of returning to her home in the farming village of Shama. She reached Sour barely a fortnight ago after the region was hit by Israeli rocket attacks.
After the escalation of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, she received abrupt orders from the local authorities: evacuate, as a matter of urgency. 'Not much later, a bomb hit our house. Everything is now in ruins. We had no choice but to leave our home behind.'
In southern Lebanon, residents are adept at the art of escape, a necessary choreography they have mastered like no other. 'This is already the fifth time I have had to leave my home because of the violence,' Moussa says, applying for food aid. 'For more than half of my life, I constantly fear the Israeli threat of invasion.'
Whatever the future may bring, Sara (29) remains unconditionally loyal to the Hezbollah group. For security reasons, she prefers not to share her surname, fearful of possible Israeli spies. She lives in Bint Jbeil Caza and holds the position of personnel manager at a private institution. 'Whether it is limited border operations or large-scale wars, I resolutely support Hezbollah's decision because they are essentially our lifeline,' she explains.
Thanks to this group, Sara can stay relatively safely in her hometown, something her parents did not always take for granted. 'Sacrificing homes and lives has paved the way for the next generation to live in peace. My parents did that, and now we are in a better situation. I will follow their example, because without Hezbollah, we would be like Gaza.'
This reportage was published by the Belgian newspaper De Tijd.